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New Report Finds Widespread Seafood Fraud in the US

One in three seafood samples mislabeled nationwide. Sushi outlets worst offenders.

Planning on a seafood dinner tonight? Be warned, what you see on the menu may not be what you get. Chances are that white tuna roll you are served is actually escolar, a fish that’s banned for consumption in Japan and Italy because it can do nasty things to your digestion. The red snapper could actually be rockfish and the braised seabass, Antarctic toothfish.

photoname Photo by Mike SaechangNationwide, sushi restaurants mislabeled their fish 74 percent of the time.

A new report released today by the marine conservation group, Oceana, reveals widespread seafood fraud across the United States. The group spent two years testing 1,215 fish samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states and found via DNA-testing that one-third, or 33 percent of the samples were mislabeled.

The problem is especially bad in Southern California where 52 percent of the samples collected were mislabeled. Austin, Houston and Boston — where almost half of the fish tested were mislabeled —  came a close second. Elsewhere, mislabeling rates varied from 39 to 26 percent (see map). But irrespective of where you live, chances are the fish you order isn’t the fish you eat. As the report notes, nationwide, sushi restaurants mislabeled their fish 74 percent of the time. And that oily escolar — researchers found that is was substituted 84 percent of the time for white tuna.

“Purchasing seafood has become the ultimate guessing game for U.S. consumers,” Beth Lowell, campaign director at Oceana, said in a statement. “Whether you live in California or Kansas, no one is safe from seafood fraud.”

This is bad news because not only are consumers getting ripped off – paying more for cheaper fish varieties, but also because eating stuff we don’t know can be potentially bad for our health and can harm overfished species, such as the Gulf grouper (which is sold as the more sustainable black grouper) as well. As Lowell told me over the phone this morning: “You can’t make a conscious choice about what you are eating if you don’t know what’s being served.”

map Courtesy Oceana (click to enlarge)

Oceana scientists found that some fish varieties, such as tilefish and king mackerel, that are on the US Food and Drug Administration’s “Do Not Eat” list for pregnant women and children because of high mercury content, are also being used as substitutes.

The study, the first-ever nationwide investigation into this problem, was however limited only to retail outlets, including restaurants, sushi venues and grocery stores. It didn’t look into where exactly in the supply chain — on the boat, during processing, or on the retail end — seafood fraud actually takes place.

Today, more than 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, while less than 1 percent is inspected by the government specifically for fraud. With more than 1,700 different species of seafood from all over the world now available for sale in the U.S., it’s impossible for consumers to verify what they are actually eating.

Clearly, as the Oceana study shows, our government needs to do a better job of tracking our seafood supply from boat to plate to ensure the fish we eat is sustainable and accurately labeled. In the meantime, it might be wise to put your fish consumption on hold, or at the very least, follow the tips listed below.

What Consumers Can Do

• Ask questions. Consumers should ask more questions, including what kind of fish it is, if it is wild or farm raised, and where, when and how it was caught.

• Check the price. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is, and you are likely purchasing a completely different species than what is on the label.

• Purchase the whole fish. When possible, consumers can purchase the whole fish, which makes it more difficult to swap one species for another.

(Courtesy Oceana)

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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